We’ve compiled a set of maps of different environmental, cultural, and economic factors which might be useful to new farmers, homesteaders, and back-to-the-landers in planning. There’s also another growing demographic for whom these maps are intended, and that’s climate refugees. As more and more people are pushed out of their homes and communities due to the climate crisis, we hope that these resources will help them to find refuge.
Leave us a comment letting us know what conclusions you’ve drawn from these maps, and if there are other mapping resources which we’ve overlooked.
Degree days are an important and under-recognized way to measure our climate and energy use. Essentially, a degree day is a measure of how much heating and cooling is necessary throughout the year to keep a building at a comfortable temperature. With their mild year-round climates, California (especially San Diego), followed by Florida and Hawaii have historically had the most favorable climates in the US. But as climate change progresses, Florida will gain degree days as it has to turn up the A/C, while Alaska will lose them by not having to run the furnace as much. Mid-latitude states like Kentucky will gain about as many cooling degree days as it loses heating degree days, resulting in little net change it total degree days. Living in a low degree day area saves energy, and, arguably, makes it more pleasant to be outdoors (although we know there’s more to a good environment than just temperature).
Any gardener or farmer knows that hardiness zones are a measure of the annual minimum temperature experienced in a region. Plants can only withstand cold weather to a certain degree, and hardiness zones determine what species and varieties of plants you can grow. Keep in mind that global warning is shifting hardiness zones northward.
Aside from needing water to drink, we also need lots of water to grow our food. In fact, more water is used for agriculture than for any other purpose. With that in mind, think very carefully before you move to an area where water withdrawls are exceeding the sustainable limit.
While we’re on the topic of water, precipitation and irrigation are also important considerations for sustainable living. In some areas, you can grow food without any irrigation because of plentiful rainfall that’s evenly distributed throughout the year. In other areas, agriculture depends on irrigation using groundwater or diverted streams.
In agriculture, soil is everything. Overall soil quality depends on a combination of permeability, drainage, pH, salinity, texture, structure, topsoil depth, nutrient content, and toxicity, among other factors. The map above depicts only one component of healthy soil – the presence of organic carbon. In areas with little organic carbon, you’ll need to add lots of compost to increase fertility. But in Iowa – Woah! – the soil is already rich in organic carbon due to years and years of fertilization from bison manure and the intentional burning of the tallgrass prairie by native peoples.
Map 6: US Tree Canopy Height.
If living in or near the woods is important to you, take note. This map represents the average height of the forest canopy, so if tall trees are your thing, you’ll find them in the West and in Southern Appalachia.
Now let’s take a look at some economic considerations. When buying land, cost is obviously a huge factor unless you’re rich, which incidentally, is why so much land is owned by wealthy absentee real estate investors instead of people who care about the land’s and community’s well-being. The estimates in this map consider only the value of land, removing the value of any structures on that land.
When looking for land, keep in mind that the average age of farmers in the US is 58 years old. There is a shortage of young farmers in the US, leaving the older generation without successors. In areas where many farmers are on the verge of retirement, that means a lot of farmland will be changing hands in coming years. Most states have FarmLink programs to help connect new farmers with retiring landowners. When the new and retiring generation match up, they can work out mutually beneficial arrangements to transfer ownership while maintaining a small farm’s legacy and promoting good stewardship.
Map 9: US Relative Cost of Living, 2015.
Another economic consideration in choosing your new home is the cost of living, which factors in the average cost of goods and services.
Map 10: US Property Tax Burden, 2012.
You won’t get rich farming, but you’ll still have to pay property tax on your land. Property tax may be more of an issue for residents in the pink areas and less so in the blue areas.
For those seeking a subsistence lifestyle, there’s little utility in being near cities. However, if you intend on selling your farm products, proximity to the markets is definitely important, and the biggest markets are in the large metropolitan cities. But not all cities are as equipped to cope with future challenges. A metro’s resilience capacity, meaning its ability to bounce back from a disturbance like a flood, a major plant closing, or rapid population growth, is probably the single greatest factor city dwellers should consider before deciding to move. Not only that, but cities that rank low in resiliency also put considerable strain on surrounding rural areas when the urban population is forced to evacuate after a natural (or unnatural) disaster. So weigh the pros and cons – do you want to be near a city or not?
Another way to economize your farm is selling to a food hub – an intermediary that aggregates, processes, and distributes products to grocers, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and regional distributors, rather than farmers selling directly to the consumer. As of 2014, Vermont and Massachusetts had the highest concentration of food hubs.
Map 13: US Broadband Internet Access, 2015.
If you’re reading this right now, the internet is probably important to you. Especially for folks who live in rural areas, fast and reliable internet access is a vital way to connect to the rest of the world, and yet ironically, rural areas have the least access to broadband and high speed internet.
It’s an unfortunate reality of the automobile era that rural communities are disproportionately affected by fatal traffic collisions. Fortunately, traffic fatalities have been decreasing in most parts of the country, but living in a place where car accidents happen less frequently might still be a good consideration for your safety. Considering intercity public transit might be a step towards decreasing one’s reliance on cars. For a more detailed map of passenger trains in the Northeast, see here.
In choosing a community to call home, remember that diversity strengthens communities.
Map 16: US Biodiversity Hotspots, 2000.
And speaking of diversity, what greater gift is there than living in a place naturally imbued with biodiversity?
You can lower your carbon footprint no matter where you live, but it’s probably more difficult to do in the red areas of this map which represent communities with high average annual household carbon footprints.
Not to sound alarmist, but nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons facilities pose a serious danger to those who live near them. It may be something to consider.
Map 19: US Natural Disaster Risk, 2011.
We’re planning for the worst here, but natural disasters do happen, and hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires will only become more powerful and destructive with climate change.
Coastal real estate in many places is extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. It goes without saying that buying land in low-lying coastal areas is a bad investment. Over the coming years, your home and land will deal with increasing storm surges, and eventually may be underwater permanently.
And the final map in this set is a significant one. Renewable energy potential is stronger in some places than others – the Great Plains has a high capacity for wind energy, the Southwest has boundless solar energy potential, geothermal is a great option in the Great Basin, and microhydro is a sustainable energy source (without the negative environmental impact of mega-dams) for those living near fast moving streams.